Walkers young and old stroll along a recently enhanced trail in Fairview Park, marking the cleared pathway with their footprints, which get criss-crossed by the occasional bike tires rolling through.
The nearly 400-foot-long path stretches east to west, abutting the fence line between the park and Parsons Field. It's within earshot of remote-controlled airplanes piloted by grounded aces that whir about the sky. Just over the fence, cheerleaders laugh as they practice, and young football players pant as they run their plays, all before the sun sets and the area closes.
On the surface, the scene shows people enjoying a beloved Costa Mesa park highlighted by a well-kept trail.
The problem is less apparent: No one seems to know how the trail got there.
Who created it? Who recently improved it with a fresh layer of decomposed granite? Why isn't the path labeled on the park's master plan? Does it go through sensitive habitat?
City officials say no one received official permission to make the recent improvements, and in the weeks since the trail became publicized on Fairview Park users' social media, there's been a digital dust-up.
On one side are those who defend the suspected trailblazers, the unnamed "booster club" members who, for years without recognition, have routinely cleared brush in the area to make better a path commonly used by children going to sporting events.
On the other side are environmentally conscious residents dismayed by the unpermitted change to their adored natural landscape of birds, wind-swept bluffs and, as it's officially known, Vernal Pool 6.
A lot of changes happen within Fairview Park's 208-acre spread that aren't permitted, city Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz acknowledged.
The creation and improvement of this path, he said, seems to be one of "those things that get done in the park overnight."
City code requires approval of modifications to public property, and Fairview Park is no exception.
"Just look at the bluffs," he said. "Somebody just carved stairs on the bluffs. BMX bikers make mounds as well. There are things that can get done out there without city permission."
If the Orange County Model Engineers wanted to add more tracks, they would need permission, Munoz said. The same goes for the Harbor Soaring Society, which has a dedicated runway for members' remote-control airplanes, if it wanted to expand.
City officials consider the east-west trail, as well as a north-south one near it, "user-defined," meaning they have formed over time from routine use. The north-south path, about 120 feet long, runs along the fence separating Fairview Park from Jim Scott Stadium. It might have been created in some form — and routinely maintained through brush clearing — around the time the stadium was built in 2008.
Some residents contend, however, that the longer east-west path is new and seems to have popped up rather quickly.
Satellite views of the park from Google Earth, which tend to be between 1 and 3 years old, show the north-south trail but not the east-west path. City officials, however, point to aerial views of the park from the 1970s and '80s that suggest the area has had trails of some kind there in the past.
One Fairview Park activist took exception to the "user-defined" description.
"There doesn't seem to be anything user-defined about these new trails — they are professionally done," said Brian Burnett, a member of Friends of Fairview Nature Park, whose goals include saving the park from development.